The Best Dylan Cues in Movie History

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So Bob Dyan’s got a new album out today, and while your film editor usually sticks to the movie beat, it’s not like Dylan is just a music figure, or even that vaguest of descriptions, a “pop culture icon.” He’s also an ever-present force in film and television, with his songs (as either writer or performer) appearing in nearly 400 movies and TV shows (according to IMDb). And while at least half of those are lazy filmmakers using the opening riff of Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” cover to convey the turbulence of the sixties, that’s still quite a lot of Zimmy on film — he’s been much more free with his licensing than, say, the Beatles, whose best cinematic cues we ran down a couple of months back. In honor of Dylan’s new record (always a cause for celebration), we do the same for him below — with the same rules, i.e., no covers, no straight-up performances, but scenes where the music of Mr. Dylan is spotlighted, and in turn furthers the action and mood. Our ten favorites are after the jump.

The Big Lebowski

Being the Achievers that we are, we have to start with the Dude — specifically, with this wonderful and memorable sequence from the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, in which our hero gets clocked on his rug and embarks on a trippy dream sequence to the strains of Dylan’s “The Man in Me,” a carefree obscurity from his 1970 New Morning album. We can’t imagine Dylan would’ve ever envisioned that the tune would end up, nearly 30 years later, as the soundtrack to a bowling ball POV, but hey, visual interpretation is a wild and unpredictable thing.

Watchmen

Director Zack Snyder had quite a job to do in the opening of his 2009 adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel: he had to set up the alternate version of American history in which the story takes place, in which, thanks to the efforts of superheroes, America won the Vietnam War and President Nixon was re-elected multiple times over. The solution, brilliant in its simplicity: he would visualize the changing of our history with an opening credit sequence showing that history, to the strains of “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” It’s a terrific literal reading of the title, and a truly great sequence — the last of the film, unfortunately.

New York Stories

Few numbers in the Dylan songbook are heard more frequently onscreen than “Like a Rolling Stone,” but most simply use the original version (as heard on Highway 61 Revisited). For his segment of the 1989 anthology film New York Stories, director (and future Dylan documentarian) Martin Scorsese made a slightly more esoteric choice: a live performance of the song by Dylan and the Band, from their 1974 American tour (as heard on the double album Before the Flood). In that form, it’s a very different song — faster, more freewheeling, with a driving energy that almost sounds like proto-punk. It’s atmosphere in this scene with Nick Nolte and Rosanna Arquette, but Dylan’s never made for very good “background music”; the song’s fierce sound works in conjunction with the emotions of Scorsese’s actors.

High Fidelity

High Fidelity is all about guys who appreciate the deep cuts, which is why it only makes sense that it would include “Most of the Time,” a lesser known album track from Dylan’s 1989 comeback record Oh Mercy. But its relative obscurity is meaningless — it’s a great song, with a gorgeous melody and a deep sense of melancholy, and is thus the perfect accompaniment to a scene that finds our hero realizing some hard truths in a convenient rainstorm.

Bombay Beach

Director Alma Har’el also went to Oh Mercy to find one of the three Dylan songs used in her unique documentary/art film hybrid Bombay Beach, which details a handful of residents in the area near California’s Salton Sea by alternating verite-style fly-on-the-wall documentary scenes with elaborate and gorgeous fantasy sequences. For “Series of Dreams,” little Benny Parrish, a likable but troubled bipolar kid, is seen climbing and riding on a fire truck, a helmet on his head and a fake mustache taped to his upper lip, living out his dream of being a fireman. Har’el brings Benny’s series of dreams to vivid life, and (coming at the end of this powerful portrait of crushing poverty) visualizes the possibility of escape by harnessing the considerable hope and power of Dylan’s song.

I’m Not There.

For his 2007 mediation on the Dylan legend, director Todd Haynes used a mixture of original Dylan tracks and performances by musicians and his actors. Perhaps the most evocative use of Dylan himself comes about halfway through the film, as “Simple Twist of Fate” creeps onto the soundtrack, scoring the increasingly strained marriage of Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The song was one of the highlights of Blood on the Tracks, on which Dylan famously worked through his separation from wife Sara (they would divorce two years after the album’s release). So its use here may be a bit on the nose, but hey, if you’re going to illustrate the end of a marriage, you might as well go for the gusto.

Jerry Maguire

Cameron Crowe has used Dylan songs twice in his films: in a montage of Vanilla Sky (complete with a reanimation of the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album cover), and at the end of Jerry Maguire, where Crowe uses an alternate version of “Shelter from the Storm” to take us out of a scene of heartwarming domestic bliss, through some parting words of wisdom from mentor Dicky Fox, and into the credits. Dylan isn’t exactly known for his warmth, but this is one of his sweeter, gentler numbers, and ends Crowe’s oft-maligned comedy/drama on exactly the right note.

North Country

Niki Caro’s underrated (and mostly underseen) 2005 drama tells the true story of a landmark discrimination case, and since it’s set in Minnesota, director Caro went for the hometown boy: not only does it include a new Dylan song (“Tell Ol’ Bill”) and a cover (Leo Kottke’s version of “Girl From the North Country”), but four archival tracks. She makes the best use of “Lay Lady Lay,” in a wonderful bar sequence (nowhere to be found online, unfortunately) that beautifully captures the song’s honky-tonk wistfulness.

Wonder Boys

Dylan won an Oscar for his original song “Things Have Changed,” from Curtis Hanson’s wonderful 2000 adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel, and it’s a terrific song — but its use as the opening credit number makes it more of a mood-setter than an active participant in the film. The most cinematic Dylan moment comes around the 80-minute mark, when Hanson uses the mournful, elegiac Time Out of Mind track “Not Dark Yet” to masterfully illustrate his protagonist’s return home after a long night of bad choices. It serves as both the accompaniment to the imagery of a man in free-fall; it’s also a perfect bridge to the introspective third act, as the character finally faces his mistakes and chooses to take something resembling action.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” has appeared in something like two dozen films and television shows (both in its original and cover versions), but its first was its best; Sam Peckinpah not only engaged Dylan to compose the score (his first) for the 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but to play the supporting role of “Alias.” Dylan’s acting wasn’t exactly noteworthy (“Bob Dylan plays a character named Alias, and should have used one,” quipped Roger Ebert), but “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was — it’s one of Dylan’s most durable ballads, and its appearance in the film is powerful and moving.

Those are our favorite Dylan songs in movies — what are yours? Let us know in the comments!